How Do You Recognize the Satguru?

BY Parvati Devi

Over the last couple of weeks, as we have moved through International Yoga Day and as I put the finishing touches on my upcoming book YEM: Yoga as Energy Medicine, we have been exploring the benefits of yoga, and how to find a yoga teacher that is right for you. These topics naturally lead to a bigger question: how can you get the spiritual guidance that will lead you to the ultimate goal in life, which is realization of your divine self? It is rare to find a yoga or a spiritual teacher that has the necessary rich and seasoned insight for such. Though their teachings may be wise and grounded, they would be more fitting to guide you in gentle hatha yoga exercises or simple and short meditations. They may not yet understand the complexities of time, karma and the trickiness of the ego. For this, you need what is known as the satguru, the true enlightened master.
The syllable gu means darkness, the syllable ru, he who dispels them,
Because of the power to dispel darkness, the guru is thus named.
— Advayataraka Upanishad, Verse 16
The word guru has come to signify anyone who is an expert in their field. Sometimes it is even used to skeptically refer to leaders who may not always act in integrity. Classically, however, the name refers to one who can remove the darkness of ignorance. When used as an adjective, the word also means heavy, or weighty. In this case, a guru is one who is heavy with a wealth of knowledge.
The Satguru, literally the true guru, is a master whose field of teaching is the soul’s journey back to the One state of pure consciousness. A satguru is a fully realized being who is capable of guiding others to attain the same supreme state. In the yogic traditions, having a realized master is considered essential on the path to enlightenment. Just as you would choose the most skilled dentist for a root canal, or cardiologist for open-heart surgery, so too you must find a fully awakened being to heal your mind of the affliction of ignorance and guide your soul home to its infinite source.
With so many scandals in the yogic and spiritual communities, and with people’s egos on display wherever you go, it may be tempting to think that it is just not possible to find anyone who is fully enlightened, let alone a satguru. You may even suspect that enlightenment itself is a legend and does not apply in today’s world. It is true that such enlightened masters are relatively rare. But even (or perhaps especially) in this agitated time, the unconditional love of the universe manifests in the form of realized masters who can guide those of us who wish to go beyond the illusions of the ego to the bliss of absolute reality. There are realized beings who walk the Earth today. I myself am deeply fortunate to be guided by one such master.
If you have been reading my past blogs, you know that I left behind a career in architecture to travel to India many years ago. Though I was honest in stating that I was going there to take my first yoga teacher-training program, I knew in the depths of my being that I was actually being inwardly led to the other side of the world by a deep soul desire to meet my guru, a realized master to guide me along the spiritual path. I had seen the light in the photos of Swami Sivananda’s eyes and, while he had left his body in 1963, I knew I wanted the light of a living teacher’s eyes to look straight into my soul. I did not consciously know what a guru relationship would look like, but I knew that I would recognize it when I had found it.
One day at the Sivananda ashram in Neyyar Dam, South India, after our morning asana practice, I met two young teenagers, a brother and a sister, who glowed with a notable light. I asked them what they were doing to exude such radiance. They knew exactly what I was seeing and simply said, “It is our guru.” By Grace, as they told me, their guru’s ashram was very close by.
As soon as my Sivananda yoga teacher-training program was complete, I traveled directly to Amritapuri, a then-small ashram founded in a poor fishing village by Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, a middle-aged woman considered to be the embodiment of the Divine Mother.
For most of the day, often without a break, Amma would sit in an unassuming chair and give her darshan, a blessing, in the form of a hug. Considered audacious for her humble South India upbringing and taboo for an Indian woman of her caste, hugging was her spontaneous and unstoppable expression of unconditional love. I would sit for hours with Amma and watch her embrace everyone as her own children. Hour after hour, while holding one person after another, Amma never moved from her seat, seeming not to need to attend to normal bodily functions such as eating, washroom breaks or rest. She was established in an unshakable presence that expressed both an immense fortitude and exquisite gentleness. I saw how she simultaneously attended to teaching her monastic disciples and directing all worldly matters of her organization with the same wisdom and compassion. By her side, I was immersed in a spiritual atmosphere that soaked into my thirsty soul. Despite the extraordinary beauty unfolding in front of me, I found myself easily drawn inward to slip into deep meditation for hours on end.
I am at a loss for words to describe the feeling of resting in Amma’s arms in darshan. What I can say is that I experienced Amma as the living embodiment of yoga, devoid of any ego, that is, a divisive sense of “I” that churns the wanting mind. Just by being in her presence, my thoughts grow quiet, and meditation simply happens. It is as though I am close to an energy center that amplifies my inherent connection with all things. I find myself able to see my habitual thoughts as passing clouds and find more space around them. This internal expansion allows me to witness the many ways in which my mind and ego tend to lead me away from the greater good and cause suffering to myself and others.
Resting in her arms during my first darshan, I knew I was in the presence of infinite intelligence and possibility. She felt like a vast universe that was immensely compassionate and wise. But the feeling was not one of something “out there”, beyond my own self, but a merging into a pure consciousness of which I was a part. In her embrace, I felt a returning home, through a mirroring of the depths of my own divine Self and the release of all that in me that believes I am separate. In her embrace, there was no thing for my mind to grab onto, no entity for my ego to rebel against. I simply was, perfectly within the whole.
A satguru is not just a teacher. The guru-disciple bond is the most profound relationship of my life, deeper even than marriage, though my marriage is a reflection of her grace. My connection with Amma holds an intimacy within its timeless embrace that speaks to the furthest corners of my soul and carries me through an inner landscape I never knew existed. The body of an enlightened guru is not bound by the finite, but extends through all time and all things.
I have spoken to Amma’s senior monastic disciples about how to recognize a fully enlightened being. The answer was that it can be challenging for those of us who are not enlightened ourselves, as we cannot recognise something we do not know. However, one monk said to me that there is guidance in spiritual texts on what a realized being looks like. In the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text, the avatar Krishna says to his disciple Arjuna,
One who is pure engages in karma-yoga and controls the mind and senses. Although he engages in action, he is never contaminated and he is filled with love for all living beings. (5.7) […] A wise man sees a learned and humble brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog, a lowborn person and all other living beings as equal. (5.18)
When a man has mastered himself, he is perfectly at ease in cold, in heart, in pleasure or pain, in honor or disgrace. The mature man, fulfilled in wisdom, resolute, looks with equal detachment at a lump of dirt, a rock or a piece of pure gold. He looks impartially on all: those who love him or hate him, his kinsmen, his enemies, his friends, the good, and also the wicked… (6.1-8)
Amma is a being that fits this description given by Krishna. Over and over again, her presence has transcended any reason my mind could grasp. It has left me in utter awe at the immensity and the unbound expanse of her vast being. As such, I have one word to personally describe Amma: “Beyond”. I would like to share Amma’s wise words from her book Awaken Children! vol. 9 that sum up so beautifully how to know if you have found your spiritual teacher.
Question: Amma, what is a true spiritual master, and how does one recognize such a master?
Amma: “A certain intellectual understanding of spirituality is necessary for a seeker to be able to recognize a true master. Of course, one of the criteria is the spontaneous love and attraction one feels towards the master. A satguru is irresistible; people are drawn to him like iron filings to a powerful magnet. The relationship between a real master and disciple is incomparable—- there is nothing like it. It has a permanent effect on the disciple. In that relationship the disciple can never come to any harm.
“However, when you feel drawn to someone whom you believe to be a true master, it is very important that you use your power of discrimination. You may feel spontaneously drawn to that person, but as you are not yet established in the state of real wisdom, your feelings are not necessarily to be trusted. You may simply be mesmerized by that person’s power, believing that he can fulfill your needs and desires. As long as your intuition is not a real, integral part of your nature, your feelings are not always to be trusted.
“Think of how many painful psychological blows you have received in your life. Eventually, you become a big walking wound. Why? Because of your wrong judgment. You have failed to use your power of discrimination. An aspect of karma is certainly involved here, but remember that however powerful your past may be, how you deal with the present moment is more important because that is what determines your future.
“If a person boasts of being a guru, without being established in God-consciousness, he will only hurt people through his thoughts and actions. He may talk, walk, and look like a realized master—but see if he loves everything in creation equally and unconditionally and is truly compassionate. If not, be alert, for he is undoubtedly still identified with the ego. Just to catch disciples he may conceal his ego and act innocently. But once he has caught you, he will begin to exploit you and hurt you, creating deep wounds within you.
“Don’t get excited if you meet somebody who claims to be a Self-realized master, because people who make such claims can be dangerous. First of all, when one attains the state of supreme realization, one loses oneself in the ocean of sat-chit-ananda. You lose your limited, individual self and there is no one to claim or declare anything. You simply merge into the infinite ocean of bliss and, instead of speaking about it, you prefer to be silent. However, a realized soul sometimes does speak out of love and compassion for the people. But he would never announce, ‘I am Self-realized! I’ll take you to God, on the condition that you surrender to me’.
“An authentic master won’t do anything in particular to attract anyone’s attention, but people will nevertheless be drawn to him. His love, compassion, and serenity spontaneously flow from him, just as rain pours out of a cloud, or water flows forth in a gushing river. Those who are thirsty will be drawn to the water.
“If you are sincere, dedicated, and have enough yearning, you will find the perfect master and he will heal your wounds. Your genuine longing to realize God will lead you to a satguru, or rather, the satguru will appear in your life. However be careful when you enter spiritual life. There are people out there who are good at using flowery, persuasive words, who won’t hesitate to make all sorts of claims. Examine such a person and see if he radiates divine love and peace.
“If you see someone who constantly radiates divine love and compassion, and deep immeasurable peace, someone with an attitude of humility and profound reverence towards every aspect of creation —that is where you need to go. Divine love cannot be imitated. A person who hasn’t yet reached the goal may talk like one who is realized, but he cannot possibly love or be as compassionate as a Self-realized being.
“Only a lighted oil-lamp can light another lamp. An unlit lamp cannot light anything. The lighted lamp can continue to light any number of lamps, and yet its flame will remain as full and as bright as ever, without losing the slightest fraction of its power. In the same way, only a jivan mukta, a Self-realized master, can awaken the Divinity within you. He is a blazing lamp that can kindle as many unlit lamps as he wants, and yet he remains ever perfect and complete.
“Once you have attained that state of God-consciousness, peace and compassion will inevitably follow, because peace and compassion are as inseparable from God-consciousness as the light from a lamp, or the fragrance from a flower. Once the lamp is lit, it has to shine, and once the flower opens up, it will inevitably spread its fragrance. Likewise, when your heart blossoms into Divinity, peace and compassion become part of you like a shadow, and you cannot avoid your own shadow. So look for a master who constantly radiates divine love, compassion, and peace towards everyone equally —towards all of creation. For that is what a true master is like.”
Of note, and from my personal experience, having the guidance of a satguru is not the relinquishment of personal power. To experience the benefits of a the satguru in your life, you are actually called to step into your fullest, true potential. A realized master will not support in any way or enable the amplification of your ego. For example, if I want Amma to look at me, acknowledge me, or give me her approval, she tends to ignore me. I then leave her feeling dejected, questioning my worth and the reality of love. The reflection of my active ego gives me an opportunity to witness the ways in which I am attached to having life go according to my limited will, and the ways I choose to disconnect from the ever-flowing source of love. On the other hand, when I come to Amma open, unassuming, free from wanting, simply present, I meet her essence as my own. A deep soul flame within me is fanned to shine ever brighter. Without any words, I have been taught the greatest life lesson – that developing my connection to the eternal light that I am is of the highest value in each moment.
It takes tremendous courage to choose to follow a satguru as the ego wants nothing to do with it. The choice requires the ability to fully understand what is real and what is not, so that you move beyond the illusions that would fool you into believing that temporary fulfillment will last. The only true happiness you will find is one that is beyond the rise and fall of your likes and dislikes. The satguru, being beyond the ego, rests in this infinite state of union and bliss. As such, he or she see with masterful clarity the ways in which you habitually limit your self.
The ego would say that to surrender to this power is to give up your own. But in truth, to surrender to it is to find your true power that rests in the infinite, undivided flow of pure love and light that are eternally present – and who you truly are.
Today, ask yourself the following questions.

  • What do I believe about enlightenment?
  • Do I believe it possible to meet a fully realized being?
  • Do I believe it possible for me to attain that state?
  • Do I desire that state? If not, what seems more important to me? Is it something that will last forever?
  • Have I been hurt or deluded in the past by someone claiming to be realized when they weren’t? If so, what was I called to learn from this painful circumstance?

This coming weekend is the celebration of Guru Purnima, a day to acknowledge the grace of the teachers in our lives. Amma will be in Toronto for this very special time to conclude her North American tour before she returns to India. If you can get to Toronto to be with Amma, do so! I will be there and hope to meet you then.
Until next week, remember,
Love yourself.
Love others.
Love our world.
We are one Earth family.